Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
6. Everything's a cult
February (part three)
Last time: Socially-acceptable shame. The sunk costs of love. A heart with poor timing.
The Goonies. National Treasure. Uncharted 4. All the good quests start with a clue in an attic. You look around and see the white walls and floors of a five-month madness. Nary a clue in sight. You check your pockets. Nada. Your jacket coughs up your wallet and your wallet, a five-pound note. It’s not a clue, but it’s five pounds more than you had a minute ago. When you put it back, you find the note from the fridge tucked into the billfold. Pull yourself together. It’s not your scrawl. Perhaps whoever wrote it holds the next clue but when you ask you brother he just laughs. You wrote it, you clown, he says. New Year’s Eve. I said that to you, then you got up, wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it on the fridge. We left it. Thought it might help. He turns back to reading the ingredients on a packet of crackers. Doesn’t look like my handwriting though, you say. He turns his attention back to the TV. Probably because you were mullered, you tit, he says.
A voice note from V: There was a woman in my meeting last night. She’d been in the program ten years. She’d done the steps multiple times, just for something to do. She was so fucking grateful for it all. And I thought, that’ll be me. I’ll still be here in ten years talking about sober dating. And I just thought, Jesus Christ, woman! Have a fucking wank, you know? This isn’t a deadly substance we’re talking about. It’s love! Fucking love! There has to be a place between oblivion and martyrdom where you can just enjoy a moment of bliss without being broken or bad. You know? You tell her you do. I think our problem is we don’t suffer fools, you say. Another voice note: I think our problem is we’re arseholes, she says.
In the shower you trace your scars, tend to them. The places where parts have come and gone. The sockets, the sutures. People tend to pay more attention when they can see your suffering. That’s why boxing movies do well. It’s a visible struggle. An external conflict. The protagonist has to face a physical test and the trials leading up to it. The narrative structure is written on the screen in sweat and blood. The question becomes, can they go the distance with their demons? They have to take some punishment, absorb the blows. How much and how many depends on how far they needed to fall. In the end, they either win or learn something about themselves. Inner turmoil is harder to photograph. Perhaps that’s why you dismembered and destroyed yourself. To make your trauma visible. To match your facade to the way you felt. That’s why you made yourself ugly. The one arm thing would probably make for an inspirational true story, but you’d make a lousy boxer. You’re no good with pain. You can’t take any more punches. Can’t absorb any more blows. So you settle instead for being your own cornerman. You tend to your sores, soaping yourself with your good hand. You’re hurt, you’re down, but you’re not out. Not yet. February is for healing. Recovering. Cleansing and convalescing. It’s the shortest month for a reason. A break between rounds. A quick breather before the fight resumes. There’s a knock at the door and a complaint about your hot water usage. You ask for five more minutes.
Everything’s a cult. Your socials are full them. Cross-fit. Clean-eating. Crypto. Sweat your way to salvation. Buy your way in. All the things that claim to be a cure. Every fad, every trend, every regime. People take the things that help and turn them into identity. They confuse the condition for the cause, and sell systems for symptoms. And if it doesn’t work, that’s on you. Try harder. Double down. Submit. Wellness is a cult. Work is a cult. Love is a cult. Because if you’re not whole it’s all just a band-aid on a broken leg. It won’t fix anything. Like twelve-step. That’s a cult, too. The way it turns addiction into identity. The way it strips you of power and agency. Maybe V is right. Choose the parts that work. Leave the rest. Maybe you’d stay if it were that simple. If it weren’t for the demands. The conviction. The control. Maybe you’re struggling to share because what you really want to do is stand up and say this will not save you.
Over breakfast your brother is prompted by your sister-in-law to execute a pre-planned ambush. We just thought, he says. Well, we wondered if you had any plans yet, for what’s next? He weaponises the word we. It’s poorly rehearsed. Hasty. Silence spreads like cold butter. Heather’s turn. Stay as long as you need to, she says. She’s good cop. Your brother pulls something out of his pocket and places it on the table in front of you. It’s a pamphlet for somewhere called Seagate. It’s sort of a retirement community for recovering artists, he says. Lily takes bites of a pancake balanced on her fork. Heather again: It’s just an idea. Honestly, no pressure at all. We love having you. You tell them you’ll think about it. Now that’s settled, she says. Have you thought about what you want to do for your birthday? You tell her you’re considering your options. It’ll be cool though, you say. You give your brother a trademark smirk. He pours himself a bowl of cereal without reading the ingredients on the box. We’re all in recovery from something.
When you arrive at your ex’s house you’re wearing your big coat, hoping it might do something to protect you from the wind, from her. Under this many layers of fabric and anxiety you’re sweating like an agoraphobic and shivering like a crackhead. She answers the door and says something you don’t hear. You follow her inside. The hallway narrows as you walk down it. She doesn’t seem to notice. In her office you find your heart sitting on top of a pile of documents. You pick it up, the page it was sitting on stained a brownish red. It seems she’s been using it as a paperweight. There’s a small crack in the base. Sorry about that, she says. Must have been damaged in the move. You tell her you’ll try not to take it to heart. The room shrinks some. Your big coat is perfect for January weather, but less so for awkward silences. The ceiling cranks down another inch. It’s been getting heavier, she says. I can barely lift it now. Your sweaty palms fumble to unfold the Tesco bag. You place the heart inside and move toward the door. You can feel the boyfriend hovering somewhere nearby. Be… success, you say, stuck between epithets. She sees you out. You dive out of the door before it shrinks shut and sprint down the street unzipping your coat, free from both furnace and fire. You’re halfway to the bus, heart-in-hand, before you realise you never asked how she was doing, never asked about the baby, never made eye contact. A little heartless of you, perhaps. But at least you had a good excuse.
At V’s suggestion, you attend one final meeting. This one is just for you. You dial in and V does her best impression of hosting. Would anyone like to share? She asks. You raise your hand, shaking as your mouth forms an unfamiliar shape. A single letter. An entire identity: I… you say, I say. I… am a lot of things. I’m ashamed. I’m in pain. But I’m not an addict. I was alone and I asked for love. That’s all. And because I was alone I accepted the love I was offered. Whenever I was offered it. As often as I could get it. And when I wasn’t offered love, I sought it out. I begged for it. But it wasn’t the love that fucked me up. It was the loneliness. You see loneliness is a wicked mistress. It toys with you. Pulls you apart, piece by piece. It takes your self-image, your self-respect, your self-worth. It makes you start avoiding people. And when you’re not avoiding people, it makes you hard to like. A real catch two-two. But I fucked up. I made a friend. Two friends, if you count my nine-year-old niece. And they taught me that I am not my mistakes. That I’m a good Uncle. And a good friend. This is the narrative I’m choosing to believe. This is the story I’m going to tell myself. V, glassy eyed, thanks me for sharing. To end the meeting, we skip the serenity prayer and invoke a hymn of our own invention: I am flawed. I have failed. And I am loved.
I’m hanging with Lily in her room. She’s doing homework, swinging her legs under her chair. I’m leaning out of her window with one of those trash claws. I ask what she’s working on. I’m writing a novel, she says. She asks how many words she needs. As many as you can think of, I say. Then add a few more. She seems to accept this as correct. She asks what I’m doing. I pluck a cigarette butt from the flat spot of roof outside. Humbling myself before the gods of the dead, I say. You know, February stuff.
British slang for drunk. See also blitzed, battered, bladdered, blathered, blotto, bollocksed and binned – and that’s just the Bs. You can also be paralytic, pissed or plastered. Rat-arsed and rinsed. Sozzled and smashed. Trollied, trousered, wankered or wellied.